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The quiet Beatle on his life and times
This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 18, 1987.
"What inspired me to come back to the music business and record another solo album after all these years?"
George Harrison, ex-Beatle, successful movie mogul and famous recluse, rubs his unshaven face and ponders the question. "Well, it was having some time off really, and getting away from it all -- for quite a while, I suppose," he laughs.
"To be honest, I just got tired of having all the responsibility of writing, performing and producing everything myself. And then when the record business went into that recession and started getting weird back in the late '70s and early '80s, I just decided not to make another record for a bit, and to lie low for a while."
But on this visit to Los Angeles, Harrison is willing, if not exactly eager, to talk in that familiar Liverpudlian twang about his life and times since the breakup of the world's most famous group.
In fact, the 44-year-old ex-Beatle, who even in his wildest days with the Fab Four was usually referred to as "the quiet one," has surprised both friends and fans by popping up all over the place this year.
After more than 10 years of lying low and refusing all invitations to play in public, the guitarist returned to the concert stage along with fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Elton John when he appeared at the Prince's Trust show in London.
And on recent trips to Los Angeles, he has turned up at shows, and on one occasion while out clubbing with Bob Dylan, has ended up jumping on stage with Dylan and John Fogerty and jamming until the wee hours.
But the biggest news is that Harrison, who was the hit of the Prince's Trust concert when he performed "Here Comes the Sun" backed by the likes of Starr, Clapton and John, finally has released his first solo album since the '70s.
Entitled "Cloud Nine," it's vintage Harrison and looks certain to put the ex-Beatle back on the charts, with a little help from the same trio, who played on the star-studded album.
It's all a far cry from the Harrison of the last decade, who was rarely seen in public and who appeared to have become the Howard Hughes of rock 'n' roll. But ever since the notorious news conference last year when, as head of HandMade Films, he was forced to confront the British press and defend the brattish behavior of Madonna and Sean Penn on and off the set of the ill-fated "Shanghai Surprise," Harrison has steadily moved back into the public eye again.
"Of course, once you've been a Beatle, you're never really out of it," he comments wryly. "People always want to know what you're up to, and if you don't immediately tell 'em, that's when they start making stuff up."
Such as the fact that he'd all but retired from the music scene? "Exactly," says Harrison. "The truth is, during that long layoff, I was always writing and putting down demos at my home studio. But apart from needing that break, it was also a matter of finding the right producer.
"I wanted to collaborate with someone, but it had to be someone I could work with and who wouldn't disrespect my past." The guitarist laughs at this self-conscious reference, and then quickly emphasizes that "really there's no point in trying to make me something I'm not. I mean, I'm not going to suddenly start making a rap record just to sound current."
In the end, Harrison found the ideal co-producer in Jeff Lynne, the founder and driving force behind Electric Light Orchestra. "We met through a mutual friend, Dave Edmunds, got together, and it all fell into place very naturally," he says.
The resulting "Cloud Nine" album was also a highly enjoyable and speedy project once it got under way, Harrison says. "With breaks, we only really worked about 60 days, so it's not your big two-year project," he grins. "And it turned out just the way I wanted, in that Jeff didn't try to make me sound like someone else, or swamp me with effects and tricks like ELO, though I like their records and that's why I chose him in the first place.
"I particularly wanted to keep it sounding like a rock band, with live drums and piano and proper guitars, so it was great to have guys like Ringo, Elton and Eric help out," Harrison says. "I'm really not a fan of all this current fascination with computer music and electronic drums, because it all sounds the same to me. On the other hand, I'm up on all that stuff, and I didn't want the record to end up sounding dated or faceless."
He needn't worry. While "Cloud Nine" isn't on the cutting edge, it's stylish, appealing and unmistakably a George Harrison record. It also proudly displays its Beatle heritage on such tracks as "Fish on the Sand" and the ironically titled "When We Was Fab."
"The Beatle comparisons are inevitable, but I don't mind," says the guitarist. "A lot of the stuff we did, like 'When We Was Fab,' was intentionally reminiscent of that whole late '60s feel. And on 'Fish on the Sand' I used my old Rickenbacker 12-string for the first time in years -- in fact probably since we did 'Ticket to Ride.' And with Ringo playing drums on most songs, you've got half the Beatles right there."
Although Harrison wrote or co-wrote the rest of the album, the first single off "Cloud Nine" is a cover version of an old '60s tune called "Got My Mind Set on You," so it's no real surprise to learn that he still prefers the past -- musically, at least.
"I never listen to the radio to keep up with current trends," he admits. "It may sound funny, but at home in England it's 'cause the DJs always talk too much, and here in America there's too many stations and I get confused, so I tend to stick with the ones that play the old rock 'n' roll.
"And the new stuff I do hear doesn't really do much for me," he continues. "Rap bores me, and all the glamour rock groups like Bon Jovi just amuse me. They obviously have a place, but they all sound like they use the same guitar player to me." He pauses slyly before adding, "They probably do."
Does Harrison feel as if the current scene has left him behind?
"In a way, but sometimes you want to be left behind," he points out with a smile. "It's like I was saying. I used real drummers and real pianists on my album 'cause I'm sick of hearing all that electronic music. Even Prince, whom I like, is beginning to sound like all those TV commercials, because everyone can use those drum machines and boxes of tricks. So now all you hear are great grooves, but no real songs.
"The Beatles experimented with all the new studio technology that came along, but we never let it get in the way of the songs, and I'd like to see today's music return to the approach -- good songs played well."
Unfortunately, some of Harrison's enthusiasm for his musical past has been soured by years of litigation; nearly 20 years after the Beatles broke up, he, like Paul and Ringo, is still fighting legal battles. A 1976 plagiarism suit, which alleged that he used the 1963 Chiffons hit "He's So Fine" for his 1970 hit "My Sweet Lord," in particular annoys him.
"One day I'd like to write a book about that song and the case, 'cause what went on is so unbelievable," he snaps. "And I still don't believe it. The story in a nutshell is that the judge decided I didn't steal the song, but that I had to make a settlement. In the meantime, Alan Klein, our ex-manager whom we'd all sued and settled with once and for all, went out and bought the rights to 'He's So Fine' just so he could continue the lawsuit. Yet he was the person who, as my manager at the time I recorded 'My Sweet Lord,' had picked it as the single, and who, when the case first went to court, had defended it, saying there was no similarity at all."
Neither is Harrison happy about the years of financial wheeling and dealing that have left others -- notably Michael Jackson -- the legal owners of his early songs. "I'm not blaming Michael Jackson personally, because it was just a business deal for him, like investing in a Picasso," he explains, "but as far as I'm concerned, it's only right that I should own the songs I've written.
"We were all very naive about publishing when we started in the Beatles," he says, "and they'd stick some form in front of you and tell you to sign, saying, 'You've got to have your songs published. This is how you do it.' But they never told us they were stealing our copyrights, which is totally immoral. It was theft, really, and we got robbed with a fountain pen." Increasingly frustrated by the messy financial aftermath of the Beatles' Apple companies, and the changing musical climate of the late '70s ("I got sick of being expected to make records that fit the new marketing demographics," he recalls unhappily), Harrison began putting more of his time and energy into his budding film company, HandMade.
"I really got into the movie business by mistake, although I'd always been interested," he explains. "I'd greatly enjoyed doing 'A Hard Day's Night' and 'Help!' and later I produced a couple of projects for Apple, including such unheard-of films as 'Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs,' which I did with John Hurt and David Warner.
"So when the Monty Python guys, who were all good friends, suddenly lost their backing for 'Life of Brian,' I just stepped in as the producer along with my business partner, and much to my amazement, we had our first hit."
Since then, the hits have kept coming, and such HandMade properties as "Time Bandits," "A Private Function," "The Missionary" and "Withnail and I" have helped earn the former Beatle a reputation as one of Britain's most consistent and canny film producers.
Until "Shanghai Surprise," that is. Harrison winces at the mention of the turkey, but isn't afraid to discuss it. "What went wrong?" he laughs bitterly. "It was more a case of, 'Where did I go right?' Basically we got the wrong script, the wrong director and the wrong stars."
It's no secret that the light romantic adventure quickly descended into a heavy, melodramatic conflict, particularly between Sean Penn and the press. At one point, Harrison was forced to fly to the Hong Kong location to control tempers on both sides.
"There's no doubt that Madonna and Sean Penn were unfairly hounded by the press," he says, "but they didn't handle the situation right, and I ended up having to do that press conference to calm everyone down. We had more problems with the movie than all the others put together, but you live and learn."
At the time, much was made of Harrison's appearance at the news conference, especially by the British tabloids which had gleefully characterized the ex-Beatle as an eccentric and monastic recluse.
"It's all bloody rubbish, like that stuff about me having a toilet that plays 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' when you lift the seat," Harrison insists. "The truth was I'd simply had enough of living in a goldfish bowl, and after the Beatles, I just gradually decided to keep a lower profile, and not appear on TV chat shows all the time. But 'cause they didn't see me at all the trendy clubs and restaurants, they started painting this ridiculous picture of me as some sort of Howard Hughes figure, with long nails and bottles of urine all over the place. It simply wasn't true."
What is true, apparently, is that Harrison, while no recluse, is still nervous about fans recognizing him in public, particularly since John Lennon's tragic death.
"It scared all of us, and I still don't like being in public," he admits. "But it's not only the shooting. It's all those years of being in the Beatles and being the center of attention. I mean, we couldn't even go to the bathroom without people watching us.
"But that's the price you pay. And to be honest, I feel I've come through it all reasonably sane and in fairly good physical shape. I don't have any real regrets. No, I think I've been pretty lucky. Look how many others didn't make it."